When mental illness drops in at church

Donita Wiebe-Neufeld | Alberta Correspondent

Asked how many “walk-ins” looking for help at a church are likely to have a mental illness, pastors like Werner De Jong say “the majority, for sure.”

De Jong, pastor at Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton, is often alone in the building when people wander in to ask for help. In fact, he leaves the door unlocked so they can find him. “The first thing I do is invite them into my office to talk with them,” he says. Invariably they ask for money, but money rarely helps [with their issues].”

The Canadian Mental Health Association’s website corroborates De Jong’s observation, stating, “People with serious mental illness are disproportionately affected by homelessness. The consequences of homelessness tend to be more severe when coupled with mental illness. People with mental illnesses remain homeless for longer periods of time and have less contact with family and friends. They encounter more barriers to employment and tend to be in poorer health than other homeless people.”

A few dollars or a food voucher given by a pastor may serve as a temporary help, or as a way to placate an individual and send them away, but it does nothing to address the larger issues mental illness often brings with it.

People dropping in at a church to ask for help often have a complicated story. Homelessness, addictions, disabilities and a lack of social support are often results from mental illness. Many of these people fall through the cracks of the social system and are left with few options for help. Some, because it is how they have learned to cope, become adept manipulators of systems and people, and are difficult to work with. Pastors and church office staff who respond to walk-ins are rarely trained or prepared to deal with the situations, understand the role mental illness plays or support the people who need help.

De Jong tells of a mentally ill man who regularly stops by to see him at church. “It is overwhelming to try to help this man by myself or even as a congregation,” he says. “He almost needs 24-hour care when he is not in jail. And the jail system is where they end up.” De Jong takes the man out for lunch once a month, commenting that what the man needs most is a listening ear and a friend.

Ed Kauffman, pastor of Calgary First Mennonite Church, says that “only experience” has prepared him to deal with the issues of mental illness and people asking for help from the church. Some of the same people come back time after time. One of these, Kauffman says, “clearly has real mental issues. It’s really hard to get rid of him. What do you do with these guys?”

De Jong has had similar experiences. “I’ve discovered that as soon as you help someone once, it’s hard to deal with the expectation again,” he says. “Once I had a guy screaming at me when I said no. Eventually he just left. Months later he came back and apologized.”

The stories and struggles of dealing with walk-ins and mental illness are common to every urban church, and so is the lack of training for church staff. The issue of safety is a concern when pastors or office staff are alone at church, regardless of whether or not strangers asking for help appear to have a mental illness. In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Carrie Barron writes, “Most mentally ill people are not dangerous. And yet public perception lags miles behind this reality.”
While DeJong and Kauffman are comfortable leaving doors unlocked, they have both experienced uneasy situations.

“One situation, I picked up a woman who was being abused,” Kauffman recalls. “I took her to my office and he [the abuser] showed up.” Kauffman recalled.

While the situation resolved without violence, the potential for it was real. Such situations highlight the need for congregations to develop a procedure for walk-in situations that will keep both staff and petitioners safe.

The language used to describe a church’s response to the issue of walk-ins can be revealing. Phrases such as “dealt-with,” “handled” or “gotten rid of” convey different goals than do phrases like “connecting with” or “ministering to.” Unfortunately, the response is often left in the hands of pastors and office staff who often lack both time and capacity to respond with anything more than crisis management.

Besides her duties at Canadian Mennonite, Donita Wiebe-Neufeld is also a pastor of Edmonton First Mennonite Church.


Suggestions for churches

  • Have a discussion about your congregation’s vision. How, and to what extent, do you want to/are able to minister to those who walk in asking for help?
  • Formulate a policy to guide your pastor and office staff so they are prepared to respond safely and consistently to walk-ins, minimizing the potential for unsafe situations.
  • Consider hosting educational events to equip staff and lay leaders regarding issues of mental illness, both inside and outside of the congregation.
  • Develop a list of organizations and programs in your neighbourhood that offer help for people coping with mental illness.
  • Encourage pastors and churches to network with each other to share resources and information.
  • Get involved with organizations that provide housing for vulnerable people.

See more in the Focus on Mental Health series:
On becoming a better person
Walking toward wellness
Shimmering peace in the midst of darkness
Healing for soul and spirit
Mental health and ‘having faith’
Being the church in an age of anxiety
Learning to let go
Students find relaxation through ‘puppy therapy’

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